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HR’s future strategy for digital learning

The use of digital tools for learning continues to be an area of both great promise and great frustration for many organisations. With the consumerisation of IT, Google have taught us to search, LinkedIn to connect, Wikipedia to access knowledge and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to access a new wave of free quality online courses. Tony Sheehan, Director of Learning Services, Ashridge.

However, the effective integration of these and many other technology concepts into organisational learning strategies remains limited in many cases. Organisations are struggling to develop digital learning strategies that bridge the expectations of the multigenerational workforce whilst individuals are also struggling to learn and make effective business decisions amidst a sea of distracting content on the internet. So how can HR professionals develop digital learning strategies that connect a multitude of learning technologies and are aligned with organisational strategy? How can busy executives find time to learn via the range of mobile devices in their pocket whilst coping with the demands of working practice in our rapidly evolving business landscape? Is there a way that digital learning can help us to learn rather than simply generate still more search results?

This paper reviews a five step process for developing effective digital learning practices:  Establish the business need for learning technology; Articulate the learning objectives; Recognise the dominant digital culture; Evaluate the learning technology options; Implement the learning technology solution. Each is considered in turn.Establish the business need for learning technology. In the face of a learning technology field full of choice and rich with jargon, clarity of objectives is essential to focus efforts on benefits that will make a difference rather than be just nice to have. In a 2013 survey of over 1000 L&D professionals, Ashridge found that 98% expect to either sustain or increase organisational spend on learning technologies over the next five years.  However, 65% of respondents stressed that more effective technology solutions are needed to delivery of business objectives and appropriate return on investment.

As a result, it is worth starting any selection process for new digital learning solutions with the end in mind: How would your business look different if a learning technology were successfully implemented? What problem are you seeking to solve? What benefits would result? How could these benefits be measured? How will they connect to your overall business strategy? Responses to these questions can help to both refine understanding of need and assess the level of investment that would be appropriate given the potential impact.

It could be, for example, that there is a need to accelerate the speed to competency of new employees in a consultancy practice in order to maximise consultancy rates.  This may well, in turn, influence specifications for a content based eLearning intervention.  Alternatively, there may be a need to upskill a group of remote workers in order to improve sales.  This need could be served with specifications for a mobile learning solution.  It could be that a more innovative mindset is needed across the organisation to create new business opportunities. In this case, a virtual conference to share the insights of a world expert in the field may be appropriate.

In each case, the optimal learning solution comes into focus following consideration of the need. Most organisations now seek to connect any planned digital learning intervention to a tangible business impact in order to demonstrate value.  Approaches to demonstrating that value will vary by organisation; measures such as return on investment (ROI) will be appropriate for process oriented organisations who focus on financial performance whereas value measures (staff motivation) may well be more appropriate in less structured organisations in the design and creative sector. Business needs will evolve, but by starting with need and potential measures in mind, any new digital learning solutions can be evaluated and business cases developed in ways that connect to senior management interests.

 

Articulate the learning objectives

After identifying business needs, specific learning objectives and desired outcomes are needed. Basic knowledge transfer on the principles of a subject such as teamwork can be taught effectively via straightforward eLearning and mobile learning tools. If, however, the goal is to apply this knowledge at a higher level – team leadership, for example – a more complex intervention may be required.  This will need to embrace the subtleties of dealing with particular types of team member, and may need to connect to performance in practice.  As such, any technology solution would need to blend simulation, learner reflection, 360 feedback and mentor or coaching support interventions in order to deliver appropriate results. Questions to consider at this stage therefore include: What learning outcomes are required to best achieve the business goal? How could blended or technology centric approachesdeliver these learning outcomes? What levels of investment are available?

Historically, the learning technology space has been dominated by the combination of Learning Management Systems (LMS) and eLearning assets in a controlled, structured manner to track user activity and to assess performance.  Such approaches to knowledge delivery and structured training will continue to provide a platform for learning (particularly in provision of health and safety and legal based training). However, the complexity of today’s decision making environment is making it increasingly difficult to understand the ‘right’ answer or the ‘right’ level of training from such structured approaches. Individuals, even at lower levels of organisations, now need to become as skilled in when to pause, think and ask for help as when to push on with decisions.

There is an increasing realisation that there is no point having all the ‘right’ knowledge unless it is applied successfully in practice at the right place and time. The learning objective, therefore, may still involve a need for some demonstrable evidence of compliance, but is also likely to be about building professional capability to support effective decision making. Professional Institutions, in evaluating CPD have started to recognise this trend by exploring the potential for self-managed records of continuing competence rather than minimal compliance based assessment.

Learning objectives in these cases may lead to solutions that are richer, more context specific, more connected to other reliable sources.  Learning may well still be consumed as a ‘course’ but may also be made available as a ‘resource’ on demand to support the needs of urgent decision making in complex environments.  Learning objectives may be to provide greater levels of self-managed development, performance support, or on-demand access to learning (potentially via mobile devices) for increasingly busy workers.

Clarifying objectives at this stage helps to develop focus in product selection; no learning technology can do everything, but by understanding learning objectives, it is possible to maximise opportunity to deliver what is required.

 

Recognise the dominant digital culture

In order to deliver both learning objectives and business benefits, digital learning solutions must connect to the working practices, behaviours and technology preferences of the people within the organisation. In an age of information overload, it is easy for learners to overlook access to learning opportunities. By assessing ‘fit’ between digital learning interventions and the dominant digital culture and behaviours of the organisation, it is possible to maximise engagement between target learners and the proposed solution.

The multi-generational workplace has also created a multitude of learning styles and user preferences toward learning technology that need to be consideredwhen selecting digital learning interventions. Some individuals will embrace the concept of self-managed development, but many others will need a blend of reminders and rewards to ensure that learning remains towards the top of their ‘to-do’ list. Some individuals are comfortable with the tools of digital learning, and may well have one or more virtual versions of themselves (avatars) in digital worlds, online discussions or virtual collaborative 'games' such as world of warcraft. In contrast, others are not yet comfortable in such environments and may therefore approach the digital learning environments with greater caution. The field of MOOCs illustrates this effect in practice; many high quality institutions are now producing excellent courses online, but learner motivation, engagement and retention are highly variable.

Questions to consider at this stage include: What are the dominant practices, preferences and IT standards within your organisation? Are your IT policies and practices carefully controlled or socially driven by users? What forum exists to share perceptions and communicate understanding of technology projects?User expectations of learning technology will be shaped by factors such as IT policy in the workplace but also increasingly from personal insights gained through use of technology outside work (social media, gaming, music, TV) and consumed through a variety of channels (mobile, tablet and online). To fully understand the digital culture of an organisation, it is important to tap into the separate clusters of technology conversation that will be taking place between champions of, for example:Business Systems (eg Corporate IT Departments); Learning Management Systems, MOOCs and Mobile Learning (eg L&D and Learning Technology Departments); New or emerging technologies such as LRS, Open badges and social learning (eg social media, innovation and R&D Departments); Business benefit and ROI (eg Boards, Clients, Technology Providers and consultants).

Learning development, course design, content development and collaboration environments will be shaped by perceptions held within these clusters, and engaging such stakeholders at key points in the project delivery of digital learning solutionswill help to ensure effective understanding of preferred user interface design, appropriate devices that need to be supported and features that are either irritable or ineffective. Many of us are familiar with gratuitous use of animations, voiceovers, quizzes, visualisations and simulations in digital learning.  User analysis and involvement across silos through planned project meetings, online discussions and reviews at key points can help to separate the valuable from the novel, can focus resources and can build enthusiasm for the optimal solution.

 

Evaluate the learning technology options.

The learning technology landscape is evolving rapidly and is awash with complex acronyms and terms that make little sense without detailed review. Having considered business need, learning objective and dominant digital culture of an organisation, however, a far more effective evaluation of potential digital learning solutions can be carried out. Questions to consider at this stage include: What impact must the learning technology deliver?Where is the evidence it has achieved this before?How could it integrate with the existing technology infrastructure and user preference?What proof of concept is possible?

What is the full cost of implementation, integration and maintenance? The types of digital learning solutions adopted will vary considerably according to the responses to the above questions and according to the alignment required to fit with digital culture, learning objectives and organisational need. Where the organisational strategy is about standardisation, organisations may seek to develop consistency, with people complying with good practices that are embedded into daily working practice. The digital learning strategy needs to align with this position, and will therefore tend towards solutions that track compliance with appropriate behaviours. Learning management systems tend to dominate in this case, supported by content (in multiple formats – video, audio, text) with exercises to evaluate understanding of key themes. There may be a strong dependency on subject matter experts and limited debate and dialogue will be present between learners as the organisation seeks to measure the impact of the ‘one best way’. Individual results may both need to be saved and even disclosed in order to prove an organisation has adequately addressed an area of learning.

This approach is useful where policy has to be transferred to large groups, where some degree of organisational 'standard' must be assessed (e.g. health and safety or military environments) or in any qualification based programmes where assessment is limited to structured evaluation and summative assessment. This approach to digital learning technology does not, however, apply in all cases. At the opposite extreme, where organisational strategy is more about reinvention and innovation or where few best practices exist, digital learning solutions must move from enforcing past approaches toward supporting decision making and learning in the face of continuous change. In these cases, bite-sized introductions must connect to in-depth exploration of insights, and learning materials must act as stimuli for debate in discussion areas that builds understanding of new knowledge areas and creates impact for the business. Through alignment of business need, learning objective, and user preference, choices can be made from a range of digital learning components can be combined to create an effective virtual learning solution. These components include: Content in multiple formats, validated and classified to feed multiple learning channels; Search and digital design to allow rapid access to learning resources; Diagnostics to signpost individuals toward learning in their preferred style; Blogs and wikis to encourage sharing of individual perspectives and co-create good practices. Web and social media feeds to provide awareness of the external perspective; Digital simulations and animations to ‘rehearse’ application of knowledge; Collaboration via web conferencing and virtual action learning to introduce real context of current practice. Discussion forums to enable asynchronous debate; Gamification techniques to encourage user participation

Open Badges and certificates of completion to provide records of activity in a particular development area ePortfolios, learning journals and Learning Record Stores to encourage self-reflection and articulation of individual learning pathways. Experimentation with any of these technologies can result in great insights and inspirations. For lasting impact, however, the blend of technologies selected and precise approach to their implementation must be aligned with the processes and culture of the organisation.

 

Implement the learning technology solution

Once a digital learning solution has been selected, attention moves toward implementation and benefits realisation.  The causes of project failures are well known and can only be addressed through careful management of people, process and technology related issues throughout the delivery phase of a new technology: How will project deliverables and progress be monitored? How will stakeholders be kept involved, connected and enthused? How will results be measured and used for improvement?

Measures of ‘success’ must again align with current practices within the organisation. Some will look at clicks, hits and compliance as opposed to time, impact and competence. Some will assess results using structured metrics such as ROI whilst others will focus on more intangible measures such as value stories, social ratings and user feedback. The growth of data analytics and visualisation now allows assessment of almost any digital interaction to be carried out, but careful consideration is required in deciding what to use and how it will be used. Data protection laws limit the extent to which individual data can be used and individual tracking of behaviour can also stimulate ‘gaming’ of learning activity and create false results. Even once measures of success have been created, it is important to recognise that the field is not static; the end point of any learning technology implementation is a powerful springboard for reflection on overall learning technology strategy and for creation of new perspectives on learning.

 

The future of digital learning

The future of organisational learning is likely to see focus shift from theory toward practice, from compliance towards competence, from courses towards resources.  Each of these challenges will place demands on the next generation of learning technologies. Content will become more concise, but will always have to connect to relevant sources of insight. Collaborative learning will become more significant which will invigorate interest in new approaches to mobile learning.  MOOCs will evolve into a key component of organisational learning strategy and the emergence of personalisation technologies such as LRS and TCAPI will provide showcases of individual competence that will revolutionise the way organisations seek to mobilise expertise and to recruit new people with unique skills.The forecast for the future is one of accelerating change, increasing shift towards self-managed development and resultant demand for digital learning solutions that blend quality content, rich community interaction and application to real world problems. The choice will continue to grow, but with focus on needs, objectives, and users, it will be possible to develop incredibly powerful learning solutions.


www.ashridge.org.uk

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